On Raising Wolves

When I meet people I often tell them I was raised by wolves. I do this as a way to excuse my sometimes pointed comments. This sentence is delivered like a joke, and often get a laugh. Usually the laugh is followed by a look of recognition, as the other meaning starts to sink in. I was raised by wolves.

I was thinking of this as I was listening to my son play with a friend this morning. The friend stayed the night, which was a first for our son. Teri and I were both a bit nervous, needlessly so as it turned out. His friend is easy to deal with, good at grasping his own needs (for a 12 year-old), and gracious with adults. The friend is also smart and verbally gifted, like out boy. Listening to them play, really more like riffing on each other, is an interesting peek into that strange time of growth called pre-adolescense.

As I listen to them casually trade verbal barbs so pointed and sharp that they would considered terribly rude if spoken among strangers, I am reminded of tiger cubs playing. Each swat and bite a cute and playful treat, yet at the same time this  behavior will eventually lead into something terrible. Fully grown tigers bite and swat with lethal force. Once they hit a certain age, there is absolutely nothing cute or charming in them.

The same can be said, of course, for wolves and their cubs.

Teri and I, because we are adults and mindful of the pain our words can inflict, are forever warning Trevor. “Find a nicer tone, son.” “These are your friends, be nicer to them.” or “Do you think you could have said that is a nicer way?” We say these things because we know from painful experience how amazing sharp and deadly harsh words from an adult can be. But Trevor is not an adult. He lives in a different world.

In middle school tough words are an art form, and being quick with a quip is a valuable skill. This is his world. There is where he lives. Boys and girls at this age are verbally vicious, yet at the same time their words are usually completely ineffective. Stand on a corner as middle school kids get out of school and you’ll hear insult after insult, sometimes repetitively, sometimes with whole groups of kids ganging up on one another. But the funny thing is all these harsh words seem to have little effect. Kids will gleefully insult each other, and then turn around and talk about their favorite video game, exactly as if nothing untoward was said. Its as if middle school kids survive by having a thicker skin than adults. Or perhaps, like the bites of young tiger cubs, the verbal skills which as an adult will prove to be lethal, are ┬áplayful and largely ineffective because they are still so young.

And that is what he is. So young, yet at times so adult. One day his words are going to carry far more weight. Like that tiger cub’s bite, they will mysteriously transform from playful to lethal. I don’t envy him this transition. It was not a easy path for me, nor was it for Teri. But its also a part of growing up.

I wonder if tiger cubs have a similar experience, if they wake up one day and say to themselves, “Holy shit. I just bit a hole in my sister’s face! How’d that happen?”

I know Trevor will eventually have this experience. I can only hope that when he does his behavior will be easier to monitor because he’s learned at an earlier age to be more compassionate for his friends, and more mindful of his words. Then again, if he doesn’t, he can always retort, “I’m sorry, I was raised by wolves.”

The irony is, from his lips it will be just as true.